HL Deb 22 March 1995 vol 562 cc1223-6

2.58 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy towards the current fisheries dispute between Spain and Canada.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, as members of both the Commonwealth and the EU, the UK is in a unique position in this affair. Therefore, we are actively working with all parties to reduce tension, to avoid further confrontation and to encourage sensible negotiation.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Will he tell the House why the Government were so ready to align themselves with European Union threats of action against Canada, which was only doing its best to protect its fisheries, in the light of the real concerns felt in this country about the activities of Spanish trawlers in our waters?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we took the stance that we did because Canada decided to act in a confrontational way, having taken the law into its own hands, and in seeking to impose a formula for sharing the agreed total allowable catch for Greenland halibut. In our view, that is not a sensible way in which to resolve an honest disagreement. It is now our task to mediate. We believe that we have made a useful contribution to that process.

Lord Shaughnessy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the problem in this altercation is not a question of the allowable taking of stocks? Indeed, it is a problem of enforcement of the allowables already agreed to by the North West Atlantic Fishery Organisation. Will the Minister further agree that the negotiations taking place at present in Brussels, to which he referred, and sponsored by the Government in the person of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State, would not, perhaps, have had the same impetus and importance if Canada had not taken what many of us consider to be an appropriate action to enforce the principles laid down two years ago?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Lord that one of the lessons to come out of the affair has been the need to improve enforcement. We are fully committed to doing that in the forthcoming negotiations. However, the problem is not the total allowable catch of Greenland halibut—indeed, that has been decided—but how to share out the catch. Canada wanted the EU to reduce catches by more than 90 per cent. to some 3,000 tonnes. Based on its recent track record, the EU was prepared to accept a reduction of 58 per cent., compared with 1993, to some 18,630 tonnes. That difference of view must be resolved at the negotiating table and not by force. I very much welcome the signs that Canada is willing to talk about possible reallocation of quotas.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the great majority of people in this country stood aghast at the spectacle of the British Government, without any apparent consultation, taking sides with Spain and the EU; and, indeed, supporting a country that has been shown to be a fish pirate nation which has depredated stocks everywhere in the world, including the North Sea? People were aghast that, in the year of the 50th anniversary of the end of the last war, the British Government should side with Spain against a Commonwealth country, remembering that many Canadians died in defence of freedom throughout the world while the Spanish were in fact giving moral, if not tangible, support to Hitler and the Nazis.

Earl Howe

My Lords, Canada is one of this country's oldest and most important friends.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Earl Howe

My Lords, therefore we owe Canada a duty to provide constructive help at times of difficulty. We did not hesitate to do that here; indeed, we have done so by working with the Canadians in order to bring about a negotiated settlement. The Canadian Government know that we have been doing our utmost to help them and they have been kind enough to say so.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say whether reports are true that the "Estai" was carrying illegally small nets and that it had secret compartments for the storage of immature fish? If that is true—or likely to be true—what arrangements can be made to ensure that the same thing does not happen when the Spanish are fishing in British waters?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the "Estai" cut away her nets in order to avoid arrest by a Canadian coastguard vessel acting outside the NAFO inspection scheme. Canada says that it has recovered the nets and that they do not comply with NAFO minimum mesh sizes. Canada also claims to have discovered a hidden compartment containing illegal catches. The details have not yet been made fully available to the European Commission. However, the "Estai" will be inspected by the Commission inspectorate when she returns to port tomorrow. If the allegations turn out to be true, that would be a very serious matter upon which it would be right for action to be taken through the agreed enforcement scheme for the North West Atlantic.

Lord Carter

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the total EU catch in the area of the North West Atlantic Fisheries Organisation was 2,000 tonnes five years ago, but has now increased to 82,000 tonnes? Can the Minister say how much of that increase is due to increased activity by the Spanish fishing fleet?

Earl Howe

My Lords, unfortunately, I cannot confirm those figures. However, I shall check them and write to the noble Lord. I can say that it has been recognised by all parties to NAFO that conservation must be the way forward. That is why a conservative total allowable catch for Greenland halibut was this year set at 27,000 tonnes. That was a conservative figure, bearing in mind that known stocks would have permitted a higher figure.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, would my noble friend be prepared to bring to the attention of his right honourable friend the Prime Minister my suggestion that Canada should be asked to lend us its Minister of Fisheries to take part in our own Cabinet, so that we would have someone in Brussels who would stand up for British fishermen as powerfully as the Canadian Minister has stood up for the interests of Canadian fishermen?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am not in the least apologetic about the way in which our own fisheries Ministers, my right honourable friend and my honourable friend, have stood up for British interests in Brussels. They have done so very effectively over recent weeks. I am quite sure that they are committed to carrying on doing so.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not true that the actions of the Spanish fishermen, both in the Irish Box and in Canada, are bringing the whole of the European Union into disrepute? It seems very odd that people who stood by us from Paardeberg to Vimy and from Dieppe to Normandy should be treated in that shabby way. Perhaps my noble friend might care to change the words of Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury to read: I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of [Canada] too; and [pour] foul scorn [on Bonino] … or [all the princes of the Commission who] dare to invade the borders of my realm". Perhaps we could then get some guts into this Government.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I cannot hope to outdo my noble friend's eloquence. However, I should just emphasise to him that the Canadians are important friends and allies; we do no service to them by being, so to speak, starry-eyed about recent events. That is neither constructive nor mature. In the words of the old song, what we have to do is to: Accentuate the positive [and] Eliminate the negative". There are aspects of the NAFO arrangements that could do with improvement. We must take that process one step at a time.